Emergency is a state of being in Peter Watkins’s 1971 Punishment Park—a reified chunk of countercultural hysteria that begins by invoking the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act and ends with the solemn, true revelation that two of the non-actors in its quasi-improvised account of an American police state are currently under indictment. Revived for three days at Anthology in a new 35mm print, Punishment Park is possibly the worst of this intermittently great filmmaker’s “You Are There” faux–TV documentaries—the best is La Commune (Paris, 1871)—but no less fascinating for that.
With the Vietnam War in its gazillionth year, Soviet subs infesting the Caribbean, American troops on the Chinese border, and Nixon still in the White House, black militants, draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, protest singers, feminists, and miscellaneous hippies are rounded up, charged with sedition, and given a choice between 15 years in a federal pen or a long weekend in a desert concentration camp.
Essentially, Punishment Park is two movies. The first is a paranoid povera sci-fi thriller; the second is the screaming encounter group run by a judge so stupid that he thinks “repression” is a fancy word for sitting around feeling sad. Watkins’s narrative cuts back and forth between the Chicago 8–inspired kangaroo-court and a forced outward-bound ordeal seemingly borrowed from the hunting-humans plot of The Most Dangerous Game. The pounding of the gavel rhymes with the pop–pop–pop of rifle fire as, out in the 100-degree desert, pigs toy with the gaggle of dehydrated flower children struggling toward the illusory goal of an American flag—ironic symbol of freedom!—50 miles away. Adding to the irrationality, everything is supposedly being televised . . . by the same BBC that banned Watkins’s nuclear horror film, The War Game. Widely reviled in its day, Punishment Park was released on DVD five years ago and hailed for its prescience—as if Watkins had imagined the end result of the Patriot Act and the horror of Gitmo. (Now that Arizona has gone all SB 1070, it could be the pilot for a new reality-TV show.)
The actual method by which Punishment Park was made is far more compelling than the premise. Watkins incarcerated both pro- and antiwar Americans on his set, assigned them roles, and had camera operator Joan Churchill document the result. Inevitably, the tribunal’s clueless denunciations of the Communist menace and Dr. Spock drive each defendant mad. When a proto Black Panther makes the choleric declaration that “America is full of muthafuckers!,” he is gagged for rudeness. Shot during the post–Kent State “law and order” election of 1970, Punishment Park can seem so outrageous as to verge on camp, but few other movies capture so painfully the rhetoric and desperation of the times.